Through the holidays, Chicago plays host to Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus,” from 1601, a rare loan from the National Gallery of Art in London. Though one painting does not usually an exhibition make, “Supper at Emmaus” is widely considered to be one of the Italian artist’s masterpieces. With its characteristic naturalism and exquisite use of light and shadow, the painting boldly depicts the moment of revelation when the Apostles realize that they are breaking bread with the resurrected Christ. Caravaggio achieves the most drama in the gestures of the Apostles, one of whom reaches deeply back into the space of the painting with one arm, while casting the other wide, toward the viewer. This beckoning to the scene of the Eucharist casts the viewer as an audience of both the event of the painting (the miracle at Emmaus) and the event of painting (Caravaggio’s consummate realism). Critic and historian Michael Fried has claimed that this “divided relationship between painter and painting at once immersive and specular, continuous and discontinuous, prior to the act of viewing and thematizing that act with unprecedented violence—lies at the core of much of Caravaggio’s art.”
In the gallery’s re-installation, viewers can compare “Supper at Emmaus” with several “Caravaggesque” paintings by artists Bartolomeo Manfredi, Giovanni Baglione and others who helped to spread Caravaggio’s style in the development of what became Baroque art. Connoisseurship is oft-maligned, but in this case it gives the non-expert viewer a chance to reach their own conclusions about what distinguishes Caravaggio from his followers. In this room, it is all in the flesh and in the restrained decadence of a basket of fruit that threatens to fall out of the painting and into the viewer’s arms. (Rachel Furnari)
Through January 21, 2010, at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Avenue.